One of the most important focuses in life is prioritizing our mental health. Whether you prefer self-care practices, meditation, yoga, or even beauty routines, engaging in something that slows us down and focuses us inwards is beneficial.
But believe it or not, outside of exercise and meditation, one of the best ways to support your mental health is to adopt habits that support your gut health.
But what is the connection between gut bacteria and mental health? Our gut is the home of our enteric nervous system, often referred to as our "second brain,” and evidence shows the microbiota in our gut can produce neurotransmitters that can largely influence this nervous system. Beneficial bacteria in our gut have the capability of influencing our mood, encouraging vitamin production, regulating a healthy sleep rhythm, and benefiting hormone production. The synergy between the Gut-Brain via our microbiome has significant implications for supporting mental health and overall well-being.
Our Microbiome's Impact on Our Mental Health
To understand the microbiome's impact on our mood, we must first understand the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis (GBA) consists of bidirectional communication between the central (aka ‘fight or flight’) nervous system and the enteric (a large division of the ‘rest and digest’) nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions like blood flow, transportation and immune function.
The gut-brain axis's primary mechanism is to regulate:
- production, expression and turnover of neurotransmitters (serotonin, GABA etc.)
- protection of the intestinal barrier
- modulation of enteric sensory afferents (digestion, absorption, elimination)
- making short-chain fats that influence memory, mood, learning, and inflammation
- immune regulation
Communication between these two systems involves the release and binding of neurotransmitters, most notable being GABA, dopamine and serotonin (1). Not only do they influence the way we feel, but they also influence the peripheral intestinal functions we just mentioned. Another interesting fact - during fetal development, the gut and brain tissue comes from the same cells in the embryo, which split to create two separate organs connected by the vagus nerve.
In 2012, the Human Microbiome Project Consortium was published, creating a framework for the structure, function, and diversity of the healthy human microbiome. From there, research progressed to show that our gut microbiomes can have an impactful influence on our mood, and vice versa. Numerous studies associate gut health and Parkinson's disease, anxiety, and depression. For example, people with low diversity in the gut are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Data suggests as our diet influences our microbiome, our microbiome influences the activity of our vagus nerve, which is directly correlated to our capacity to regulate stress responses (2). This is the same mechanism that breathing, yoga, and meditation contribute to stress resilience and mitigating mood and anxiety symptoms.
How to Support Your Microbiome for Mental Health
Essentially, consuming the right foods and probiotics can improve mental health and well-being. Let's break down some of the most impactful changes you can make.
Remove inflammatory foods
Eliminating pro-inflammatory foods like sugar, gluten-containing grains, and dairy might be a great place to start if you’re experiencing mental health struggles. These foods have been linked to increased levels of systemic inflammation and the resultant decline in our beneficial flora (3). Instead, incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables, fibres, and anti-inflammatory spices that can affect your microbiome food sources and support. For example, some of the best gut-boosting spices that promote inflammation reduction are saffron, turmeric, bay leaves, ginger and cinnamon.
Incorporate fermented foods and probiotics.
Research suggests that specific probiotic strains have the capability of influencing our mood, gut function, and inflammation levels. Of particular interest are the strains Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus R0011, with studies demonstrating better stress levels and coping skills, which may be a result of benefits on barrier function and suppressing inflammation (4). Eating more fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha (watch for added sugar) can significantly increase your exposure to probiotics.
Eat More Fibre
Eating nuts, seeds, and leafy greens is vital as they are rich in fibre, folate, iron, and other vitamins. Leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, and collard greens are excellent sources of folate.
Folate is an essential vitamin, helping to decrease depressive symptoms, and nuts, seeds and greens rich in soluble fibre improve gut bacteria by acting as a source of nutrition. Good bacteria eat these fibres to produce short-chain fatty acids (most notable being butyrate), which have been shown to regulate nutrient absorption, reduce inflammation and oxidative stress on the gut lining, reinforce gut barriers, and improve motility. Furthermore, an increasing number of studies have stressed the role of butyrate in the prevention and inhibition of colorectal cancer. Beyond the gut, butyrate is also showing promising potential for its therapeutic benefits in hemoglobinopathies, genetic metabolic diseases, and metabolic diseases (insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and ischemic stroke).
Support Your Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is comprised of a group of afferent fibres that originate in numerous layers of the intestinal walls, and connect to an area in the brain that regulates hunger, appetite, and the digestive process via gut hormones and regulatory peptides like ghrelin, cholecystokinin (CCK), glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), and peptide YY (PYY). What's even more interesting is there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between your microbiome and these gut hormones, which ultimately bind to chemoreceptors and regulation our food intake and energy balance.
Strengthening your Vagus nerve may include things like cold plunges, breathwork, humming/singing, morning sunlight, and certain forms of meditation. A really practical way to actively support your Vagus nerve would be to check out the Nerva App (a personal fav)
Focus on Vitamin D
While not entirely correlated to gut function, it's always essential to highly that not receiving enough vitamin D can lead to significant increases in anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is common, so it is essential to implement more foods rich in this vitamin. Herring, salmon, cod liver oil, sardines, and egg yolks are some of the best vitamin D-rich foods, but it’s important to supplement during winter months to ensure you're getting enough.
Naturopathic Support for Your Gut-Brain Axis
If you want to take a different approach regarding your mental health, start by considering how your gut influences your feelings. Naturopathic support aims to remove the aggravators, improve the gut barrier, and restore the microbiome to get you back to feeling like the person you were meant to be.
Dr. Courtney Holmberg, a Naturopathic doctor in Toronto, has a clinical focus on digestive health, the microbiome, and its influence on mental health. Contact us at 647-351-7282 to book an appointment.